Personal Document Translation: What If I Can't Read Something?

The last post of the month is about a topic that's not very glamorous, but can be quite lucrative: personal document translation. Oftentimes, linguists shy away from it because dealing with non-businesses can be time-consuming and it's happened more than once that you don't get paid. We avoid this by kindly asking for pre-payment for personal document translations. We've translated hundreds of documents for dozen of government agencies around the world, and one of the most frequently asked questions we get from new colleagues is: what do you do if you can't ready something? Allow us to share our thoughts.

  • Ask the client. The beautiful thing about working directly with individuals who most likely are the owners of the documents in question is that you can easily go to the source. This is important for handwritten documents where say, the place of birth is noted but it's a small province in a country you are not familiar with. In these cases, we do think it's perfectly acceptable to ask the client, as they would obviously know where they were born.
  • When to put [illegible]. While there are no hard and established rules on this, we would never guess or fill in the blanks (more than a letter or two) if the portion we cannot read is typed but either too faint to read, cut off, etc. In that case, even if the client could solve it for us, the issue is readability of the document (rather than sloppy handwriting), and in such cases, we usually put [illegible]. Most of our colleagues have tended to handle it this way, but of course there are other approaches.
  • Requests for changes. You'd be surprised how often clients have asked us to change their birth date (because it was incorrect on the original or for other, significantly less legitimate reasons), name (because they have since gotten married or divorced), or simply asked us to translate parts of the document and exclude others. However, that gets us into the dangerous territory of document falsification, and you want to steer as clear of that as humanely possible. Since these document translations are almost always certified and notarized, we never change, add, redact, etc. anything at all -- no matter how small. Explaining to the client that document falsification is a crime in which you will not participate usually does the trick.
  • Certifying other's work. This is a bit off-topic, but still related. Oftentimes clients will say that they "just translated this themselves since they speak both languages" (we can see the collective eye roll from here!) but that they want a "real" translator to certify their work. We gently point out that we cannot say the work is ours when it isn't.
What about you, dear colleagues? Do you handle this in a similar fashion? We would love to hear your thoughts. Just leave a comment below!

Interpreting: Spanglish Example of the Month

As many English<->Spanish interpreters know, especially those of us who work in the US, interpreting Spanglish and anglicized versions of Spanish words can be a signficant challenge. Many non-English speakers do speak enough English to throw English terms into their Spanish-language speech, which makes things interesting, to say the very least.  Even if you live and work in an area where you are surrounded by Spanish and Spanglish (as Judy is in Las Vegas, NV), many of these can can still throw you for a loop. Having grown up in Mexico City, we pretty much know how Spanish speakers can potentially mispronounce English-language terms to come up with all kinds of indecipherable things, but here's one that really was a challenge. And perhaps it wasn't even Spanglish. We don't really know what it was, but here it is for your reading pleasure. Note: the following is in both English and Spanish.

At a deposition. The attorney, Ms. Higgins, is the English speaker, and the deponent, Ms. Ríos, is giving testimony in Spanish..  Mr. Urr is Ms. Ríos attorney. All names have been changed. Judy is the interpreter.

Ms. Higgins: On the afternoon of April 10, where were you going?
Judy (interpreting): En la tarde del 10 de abril, ¿a dónde se dirigía usted?
Ms. Ríos: A la Willy-Willy.
Judy (interpreting): To the Willy-Willy.
Ms. Higgins: I am not familiar with Willy-Willy.
Judy (interpreting): No conozco la Willy-Willy.
Ms. Ríos: ¡Pues la Willy-Willy! En la Decatur esquina con Tropicana.
Judy (interpreting): Well, the Willy-Willy! On Decatur and Tropicana.
Ms. Higgins: I don't know a store with that name.
Judy (interpreting): No conozco tienda alguna con ese nombre.
Ms. Ríos: Pues no sé, licenciada, pero yo voy a cada rato. Muy buenos precios.
Judy (interpreting): Well, I don't know, counsel, but I go all the time. Great prices.
Mr. Urr, interrupting: For the record, my client is talking about the Goodwill store.
Judy (interpreting): Quiero hacer constar en actas que me cliente se refiere a la tienda Goodwill.
Ms. Ríos: ¡Exacto! La Willy-Willy, o Goodwill, o como le digan. ¡Es lo mismo!
Judy (interpreting): Exactly! Willy-Willy, or Goodwill, or whatever it's called. Same thing!
Ms. Higgins: I would never have guessed that. OK, let's continue talking about what happened when you went to the Goodwill store.

During depositions and all other legal proceedings, things happen very quickly and you have very little time to react. In retrospect, Judy did have a hunch (based on the address the deponent provided) that the Ms. Ríos was referring to the Goodwill store, but definitely knew that a hunch (or a guess) was not an acceptable option. We think this worked out beautifully -- an attorney who had knowledge of the case clarified everything for the record and we went on with the deposition. After it finished, there was much good-natured laughter about Willy-Willy.

We would love to hear your best examples of Spanglish or other challenging interpreting situations, dear colleagues!

Interpreting Profanity in Court

Interpreting in court is not for the faint of heart. During the course of their careers, judicial interpreters will hear and interpret many things, and sometimes those things can be disturbing. One of the hardest things for some newcomers to court interpreting to master is the fact that they have to interpret everything that is being said, even if it's difficult, offensive, heartbreaking, incorrect, etc. Judy trains future legal interpreters at several universities, and one of the most frequent questions she gets from interpreters-to-be is: How do you handle profanity? What if someone drops the F-bomb or says something worse than that? 

The short and simple answer is: you interpret it. You will probably encounter less profanity than you think, but at some point, a defendant may curse, or attorneys may curse at each other, or a witness may start cursing at a defendant. Judy had to interpret at a deposition a few years ago where a few attorneys screamed at each other for what seemed like an eternity (it was only a few minutes, actually). She had to interpret that for the non-English-speaking deponent, who was shocked by the language being used by all attorneys, including his attorney. 

We've heard some stories, which perhaps are urban myths, that some interpreters, rather than interpret what's being said when it comes to profanity, will say: "Your Honor, the ________ is using profanity." In our humble opinion, that is not really an option. When you are in court, you take an oath that you will interpret everything, unless the judge instructs you not to, and you must do that. It doesn't matter if the language offends you-- you are there to interpret it. Of course, you do technically have the option to recuse yourself from the proceedings and hope the court can find another interpreter, but that's not a good solution in the long run, and it also won't make you popular with colleagues and court staff. 

So our advice to future and current court interpreters: be prepared for profanity, and interpret it. You might actually have to do some research into how to render some terms in the other language (this may be cringe-worthy for some), as these renditions can be trickier than you think. 

Join the conversation! Commenting is a great way to become part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media is all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

Subscribe by email:


Twitter update

Site Info

The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

Translation Times